"We Called Him Papa Saddam": What It Was Like Growing Up In Baghdad

Growing up in Baghdad, Tarek Turkey and his classmates used to call Saddam Hussein "Papa Saddam." The authoritarian leader's photo was everywhere, and the boys at his school saw him as a kind of superhero, protecting Iraq from foreign invaders, Tarek says.

"I used to like Saddam Hussein a lot as a little kid, because in school, we considered him a father figure," Tarek remembers. "It was like, yes, he’s the man that I like and love and consider my president, because he’s making my country a safer place for me to live. So I believed that, and my parents didn’t try to change my point of view, because I was a little kid."

But all that changed 13 years ago this month. Tarek was only 11 years old when then-President George W. Bush gave Hussein an ultimatum: 48 hours to leave Iraq with his sons before the U.S. would invade. Tarek wasn't totally sure what that would mean for him. But his parents were.

Together with aunts, uncles, and cousins, Tarek and his relatives piled into the family's Kia van and fled the city. His parents thought the family would be safer in the small town of Hīt, in Anbar province, where Tarek was born and his grandparents still lived.

"We basically stacked up the car with bags of potatoes and onions, because they were cheap, and we could buy a lot of them. We took our personal belongings and we went to Hīt," Tarek says.

Once there, the kids enjoyed themselves, oblivious to what was going on: "I remember it as a fun time, because I got to see my cousins that I don’t see a lot." But the adults knew that the war was about to change their lives forever.

"I remember the first day of the invasion, I woke up, and I saw my mom and my grandmother crying, watching TV. Baghdad basically fell for the Americans, and Saddam was on TV, talking. And I remember just smiling, like it didn’t really affect me that much. But then I saw my mom crying, she yelled at me for smiling," Tarek recalls.

"The city was just being destroyed. It’s a sad thing to see. Then the looting started, and people were stealing things from government buildings, and museums, everything. Saddam was basically on TV talking about how he’s encouraging people to loot and steal things, because that's Iraqi money...and, you know, the looting happened in front of the American soldiers' eyes," Tarek says.

Tarek's life would never be the same again: The family would flee to Syria and eventually to the U.S., and they'd never be able to return home. Inspired by his own experiences as a refugee, he traveled to the region for Refinery29, speaking with Syrian refugee women and sharing their stories through Daughters of Paradise. Ahead, Tarek shares the personal story of his own life as a refugee and a filmmaker.

Pictured: Tarek on a family vacation in the ancient city of Hatra, located in Mosul in Northern Iraq. The Islamic State group now occupies the city.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.